From gang-rape to art openings, new age Kalighat painter Kalam Patua casts a glance at everything around him

Kalam Patua is back but after a long hiatus. Between his last solo in the Capital and his latest ‘Kalam Patua: A Studio in Delhi’ currently on at Gallery Espace, there is a gap of nine years. Kalam, a contemporary Kalighat painter, is a postmaster during the day and artist by night. Very apologetically, he explains how he is only able to paint after 10 and that too is not really appreciated by his wife.

“I was transferred to a post office that was very far from where I live…30 kms one side. There was lot of work and it left me with no time to paint. Then the chief postal officer saw an article on me published in a news magazine and transferred me back to Rampurhat,” says Kalam, who produced this body of work — 40 paintings — only in the last two months. The total number of works would have been around 50 had Kalam not left some in the auto rickshaw he took one day to reach the gallery.

For several years, Kalam has been occupied with reinterpreting 19 century Kalighat paintings in a contemporary manner. Satire and wit intact, he isn’t looking at westernised Bengali babus unlike his predecessors, who were ridiculing the babus blindly aping the Britishers during the Raj. Kalam’s gaze is transfixed at his immediate environs.

He observes, analyses and, eventually inspired, incorporates it into his realm. The angel of victory — a bugle-blowing bronze fairy — atop the dome of Victoria Memorial has landed on his canvas, right in front of the photographer who is bewildered at its sudden appearance between him and his subject, the Victoria Memorial.

“The fairy used to fly but not anymore. It has stopped rotating, so where has the flying fairy gone? It has come here,” says Kalam. A personal and unique take but not removed from the aesthetics of the original Kalighat paintings.

Kalam says his ancestors were actually idol makers and not scroll painters of Kalighat, but the lure of commerce brought them to Kalighat; those who succeeded stayed back in the vicinity of the Kalighat temple in Calcutta to practise the genre. Kalam learnt the nuances of the form from his uncle Baidyanath Patua and over the years repositioned it as new Kalighat paintings.

His influences range from TV to films to literature and the latest news. Moved by the brutal gang-rape of Delhi, Kalam is working on a series of paintings on the issue.

One of the works — half tree and half woman with a lover and a child coiled around her on either sides — is about how we all seek out women as mother or lover, but respect still eludes her. “I couldn’t be part of the protests or the candle march… so it is my way of registering a protest and contributing to the movement.”

The displayed works are classified into different categories — autobiography, photo-studio, erotica and tradition. Autobiographical work is a recent addition, Kalam informs us. He stands isolated at the opening of his own art show, observing the crowd from a distance with hardly anybody interested in the art but more keen on conversations. “I feel that contemporary artists keep folk artists like us at some distance. They won’t really talk to us much.”

Another instance where he laughs at himself is when he dives down into the sea of memories to fish out scenes like drinking milk from the udder of the cow while she is being milked by his father, as her own calves look on desperately.

(The exhibition is on at Gallery Espace, Community Centre, New Friends Colony, till March 1. Kalam will also paint live in the gallery space during the course of his exhibition. The gallery is also taking Kalam Patua’s works to India Art Fair for the very first time.)